Mom killed that idea
In his fascinating and thought-provoking book The Educated Mind, professor of education Kieran Egan tells the story of kids at a lemonade stand where a customer jokingly asked if they had any beer or scotch. The five-year-old proprietor went into the house and asked Mom “whether he could could have some beer and scotch for the stand. He emerged a minute of so later, shrugged, and told his siblings, ‘Mom killed that idea.'” His three and four-year-old siblings had no difficulty interpreting this sentence.
The importance of metaphor in learning
Egan emphasizes the important role of metaphor in learning. Studies have shown that very young children are capable of “prodigal production” of metaphors. Such metaphorical capacity declines as children become older. “Younger children’s production and grasp of metaphor are commonly superior to that of older children and adults.”
Young childrens’ effortless invention of wonderful words to describe objects in their lives amuses us. My grandchildrens’ lovely constructions passerports (passports) and glovins (gloves) come to mind. These are delightful reflections of their minds’ ability to conjure up melanges of ideas and words that express their reality.
We often assume that we get smarter as we get older. By “smarter” I mean our abilities are superior and the likelihood we’ll use them higher. While this is true in many respects, our demonstrated decline in metaphorical capacity means that we are less likely and less able to use metaphors as adults.
The lack of metaphor in education
This is a loss for event education, as metaphor is one of the most powerful methods for extending learning. The philosopher Max Black said “it would be more illuminating…to say that metaphor creates the similarity than to say it formulates some similarity antecedently existing.” Metaphor then, Egan says, “becomes a key tool in aiding flexible, productive learning”. It “helps us to acquire knowledge about new domains, and also has the effect of restructuring our organization of knowledge.”
So, how do I describe my recent experience of trying to get internet service restored at my home? By comparing it to being stuck on an airplane for days waiting for it to take off without any announcements about what’s going on or when we might leave (if ever). Similarly, my mentor Jerry Weinberg published a book about writing employing a single metaphor—building a fieldstone wall—to illustrate every stage of the process. Both examples illustrate our harnessing a metaphoric plow to prepare the ground for seeds of learning [oops, I did it again.]
Further, I wish more attention had been paid to metaphoric fluency in my early education. As a result, I find it hard to summon up useful metaphors for ideas I’m trying to get across. For this we can perhaps blame Plato and his successors who insisted that the “poetic” be eliminated from intellectual inquiry. Consequently, literacy education discourages our use of metaphor.
Some people seem to have a natural ability to dream up apt metaphors. They are usually engaging and memorable presenters (great comedians frequently share this gift too.) Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” and Reagan’s “break down this wall” speeches obtain great power from metaphor.
Metaphor and event design
How does all this this relate to event design? For example. Eric de Groot & Mike van der Vijver‘s techniques for formulating meeting objectives and their Elementary Meetings model rely on the power of metaphor to create stakeholder buy-in for meeting objectives and design. And second, good production designers know the importance of choosing event themes that connect at a metaphorical level with underlying goals for the associated meeting.
In conclusion, I believe it’s worth cultivating our skill at employing metaphor, or seeking out those who are good at it. So let’s not have to say “Mom killed that idea!” Better events may well be the result.
Photo attribution: Flickr user adwriter